Rearview | Manikarnika, Priyanka Gandhi, and What Indian Women Do When the Men Fail


Rearview | Manikarnika, Priyanka Gandhi, and What Indian Women Do When the Men Fail

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Yesterday, like so many of us biding the interim period until Gully Boy releases in mid-February, I watched Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. I have to say I was not even a little surprised, because it turned out to be as hoarse, as strident, as mildly amusing as it promised in the run-up to the release.

Ranaut, who I otherwise really enjoy watching on screen and off it, replaces her formidable acting chops with jaw-clenching and dead-serious eye-balling through all of the important scenes. She is surrounded by a coterie of loser-ly men; the clueless English officers all seem to have arrived at a Halloween party dressed as Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange.

As we wrote, the staccato Manikarnika feels little more than a visual recap of your middle-school history textbook. Not once do you get an insight into the queen’s interior life or any trait of her personality beyond her courage: For instance, you know she loves books, but the level of her engagement with them seems at par with any Instagram “books influencer”.

I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of the depiction, but I am fairly certain that Rani Lakshmibai did not discover that she was pregnant while dancing with plebs to an item number – I could have sworn they were chanting “tequila, tequila re” – in the middle of a tribal settlement. Or that she, shot through the middle of her chest and aware that she was about to die, looked Hugh Rose in the eye as she gave herself up to a raging fire.  

Still, there is something empowering about watching a woman – and I mean both Rani Lakshmibai and Kangana Ranaut – breaking tradition, no matter how hyperbolic the means. I can’t remember the last time, or ever, that I heard a hall full of young men cheering for a woman hero who schools her army general, tells the English to fuck off in English, and performs Baahubali-level stunts, scaling up elephants and fort walls alike. Maybe they were reacting to the hyper-nationalistic rhetoric that is Manikarnika’s cache, especially in these charged times. But that kind of adoration is usually reserved for our male heroes, for our Rajinikanths and Salman Khans, and we will hoot for them every single time they swallow bullets or overturn automobiles with a flick of their wrists. So it was deeply satisfying to watch her leap off the facade of a fort on horseback, her child tied to her back – the very picture of an average Indian working mother.

Where Manikarnika is harsh and boisterous, Priyanka Gandhi is the picture of quiet elegance – less Queen and more yasss kween.

But did the legend of Rani Lakshmibai really need any embellishment? The much-mythologised queen’s story is eye-wateringly incredible enough: A 19th-century Indian woman, educated in the battle arts, not born a royal, but who rose to become a rani beloved of her subjects. A woman of extraordinary strength and resolve who led an army of men and women into battle. As this column in Mint Lounge points out, “Once, it is said in a story that survives in multiple iterations, the Peshwa’s adopted son refused to take her along on his elephant. Years later, when she was granted three wishes on her wedding, she expended one of them to courier to this old friend the present of a particularly mighty elephant.”

I came back last night aching to read Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s “Jhansi Ki Rani” – yes, that epic poem we were all forced to mug up for every recitation competition. Not once in school did it inspire anything in me, but last night, despite the hyperbole and magnification, it proved to be far more poignant than the film – sample this verse that compares her to the goddesses Lakshmi, Durga, and Bhavani.

Lakshmi thi ya Durga thi woh swayam veerta ki avatar,
Dekh Marathey pulkit hotey uski talwaron key vaar,
Nakli yudh-vyuh ki rachna aur khelna khoob shikar,
Sainya gherna, durg todna yeh they uskey priya khilwad.
Maharashtra-kul-devi uski bhi aaradhya Bhavani thi,
Bundeley harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thi,
Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi.

Alongside Manikarnika, another woman leader made her debut in the Indian political firmament, although, on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where Manikarnika is harsh and boisterous, Priyanka Gandhi is the picture of quiet elegance – less Queen and more yasss kween.

So loud have the calls for Priyanka’s entry into politics been, and for so long now, that I feel like I already know her, that we could sit down for a cup of tea and have so much to talk about.

I might ask her, for instance, about this long-winded delay: Is she really the “greatest victim of patriarchy” or was she perfectly happy staying out of politics? Is she now entering the fray of her own accord, or is she – like Sonia Gandhi in 1998 – being brought in to rescue a party on life support? What does she make of the pressure of being the smarter, brighter, more appealing Gandhi sibling and inevitable comparisons with her grandmother? Grande or venti? And the question that has everyone flummoxed – what about Robert Vadra really appealed to her?

Even though she is only just embarking on a political career and is yet to stand the test of the ballot, Gandhi is another much mythologised woman. Tales of her stepping in where her brother and her husband have failed, whether in politics or at life, are par for the course in Delhi circles. The legend of Priyanka Gandhi, without any actual evidence, abides.  

I am already wondering: How will history remember her? We’ll probably know in a few years. All I hope is, she gets a better biopic than The Accidental Prime Minister.